The memory is as clear to me now as the day
it happened. My little brother and I were playing and I was
tormenting him about something until he burst out crying.
I had been there and done that many times before.
But this day something amazing happened: I felt
really bad that I had hurt his feelings and I went
into the bedroom to apologize! For the first time,
I realized that my little brother was a person with feelings.
Have you ever had a moment like this when you've
suddenly seen yourself or the people around you in a whole
new light? If so, then you will find in St. Paul a person
who really understands all the ups and downs involved in growing
upphysically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.
Spend some time in this Youth Update
traveling with St. Paul as he struggles to get to know Jesusand
himself. Most biblical references are easily found in the
Acts of the Apostles. All others are noted in parentheses,
for your convenience in your own travels with Paul.
Paul Sees the Light
When you are first introduced to Paul in the
Acts of the Apostles, he is hard at work "trying to destroy
the Church." At this point in the story, Paul is referred
to by his Jewish given name, Saul.
A devout Jew, this young man, probably just
out of his teens, fervently believes that his Jewish brothers
and sisters who proclaim Jesus as their Savior (Messiah
in Hebrew; Christ in Greek) are glorifying a known
criminal at the expense of their most deeply held religious
beliefs. He decides to put a stop to things once and for all
in the city of Damascus by arresting any followers of Jesussoon
to be known as Christiansthat he finds there.
Something extraordinary happens to Paul on the
way to this large city located about 90 miles from Jerusalem
in the Roman province of Syria. Just as the closest friends
of Jesus did on that first Easter Sunday, Paul meets the risen
Christ: "On his journey, as he was nearing Damascus, a light
from the sky suddenly flashed around him. He fell to the ground
and heard a voice saying to him, 'Saul, Saul, why are you
In that moment, Saul sees Jesus as the fullest
expression of the special love relationship between God and
humanity that his Jewish faith celebrates. His misplaced zeal
has been driving him to attack the source of love and truth
for which he has been searching his whole life! That inner
vision is matched by an outer blindness.
Against the Current
Saul's full transformation into Paul is not
instantaneous. After his profound experience near Damascus,
he is led into that city to the home of a Christian believer
named Ananias who baptizes him Paul. (Often in the Bible,
a character's name change symbolizes a basic life change as
well.) Immediately after the baptism, "things like scales"
fall from his eyes and Paul can see again.
After his adventure, Paul spends some time in
the deserts of Arabia before embarking on the ministry he
will pursue the rest of his life (see Galatians 1:17). While
he doesn't elaborate on what he did during this time, it's
likely that he reflects and prays about his new calling.
When Paul talks about his new beliefs in public,
the response he gets from his audiences is unanimous. Thumbs
down! Nobody likes him.
Feeling terribly betrayed, the Jews in Damascus
who supported Paul in his attempts to persecute the Christians
plot to kill him. Paul leaves Damascus at night in order to
foil the plot and succeeds only with help from his friends:
"...his [Paul's] disciples took him one night and let him
down through an opening in the [city] wall, lowering him in
Paul's luck doesn't get much better in Jerusalem.
When he had left town, he was known as an enemy of the Christians
who lived there. Now he's back claiming to be one of them!
Just as you would be if a classmate who has been teasing you
now claims to be your friend, the disciples of Jesus are suspicious.
Fortunately for Paul and for the Church he would
help to build, a disciple of Jesus named Barnabas takes Paul
under his wing and introduces him to Peter and the other leaders
of the Christian community. For a while things are calm, but
eventually another plot against Paul is formed. Once again
Paul has to be smuggled out of town. This time Paul heads
for home, the city of Tarsus located on the southeastern shore
of Asia Minor (modern Turkey).
It may be hard for you to understand how any
talk about religious beliefs could get a person in so much
trouble with the authorities. In our country, no particular
religion is promoted or prohibited. This was not true in the
ancient world when the emperor was seen as a god and religious
law and civil law intertwined. Any person who questioned the
official religion of a region was also seen as a threat to
the local civil authorities.
Hitting the Road
Experiences such as these must have helped Paul
to understand that his mission was going to be markedly different
from that of the other eyewitnesses of the risen Christ. Like
a rock star promoting his albums on a concert tour, Paul now
spends his life on the road.
He makes three journeys through the population
centers of the Roman Empire that surrounded the eastern part
of the Mediterranean Sea. In each city that he visits, places
such as Athens and Corinth in Greece, Ephesus in Asia Minor
and Antioch in Syria, Paul proclaims the good news about Jesus.
Eventually, Paul does make it to the big stageRome,
the capital city of the Empirebut not in the way he
expected (more about that later).
Paul is able to travel as extensively as he
does because of the efficiency of the Roman system of roads
and the peace forcibly kept by the Roman army among the various
peoples Rome has conquered. But Paul's travels are far from
Mostly his message about a God who would become
human and then give his life out of love for all human beings
is ridiculed and sometimes violently rejected by both Jews
and non-Jews (also called gentiles) alike. The gods and goddesses
of most ancient religions, with few exceptions, were imagined
as beings with tremendous power who transcended the petty
concerns of human beings. Even Judaism, which developed a
radically different understanding of God, saw such a concept
as a gross insult to God's transcendent power and glory.
Toward the end of the first journey, as Paul
and Barnabas are heading back toward Antioch, a group of angry
Jews meets them on the road, throws stones at Paul and leaves
him for dead. Just after Paul and his new traveling companion,
Silas, enter into Europe on the second journeythe first
time the gospel message would be proclaimed therea group
of disgruntled slave owners in a town called Philippi have
the pair arrested and beaten by the local authorities. They
are charged with conspiring to cause a riot.
Paul and Silas make their escape only because
of a miracle. As Paul is preaching in Ephesus during the third
journey, he is almost killed by an angry mob worked up by
a group of local merchants who are horrified at the number
of Ephesians abandoning the worship of the pagan goddess Artemis.
They have been watching their profits evaporate as sales of
expensive silver trinkets and statues related to Artemis plummet.
(Probably the market for "Artemis Rules" T-shirts bottomed
The Word Spreads
Almost every town that Paul visits, however,
holds a few people willing to listen. Some, such as Aquila
and his wife Priscilla in Corinth, are Jews. Most, however,
are gentiles who come from many backgrounds and cultures.
They find in Paul's message about Jesus the source of hope
and truth for which they have been searching in a culture
that seems interested only in power and material wealth.
To Paul, all these people are his spiritual
children. When he can no longer be with a community in person,
he often keeps in touch by writing letters.
Preserved within the New Testament are seven
of these letters from the hand of Paul himself: Romans, 1
and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians
and a brief note to a man named Philemon. Several others (Ephesians,
Colossians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus) may
not have been written by Paul himself but in any case are
inspired by Paul's ministry. (In the times that Paul lived,
attributing a letter or book to a famous person was a way
of showing respectand of increasing the chance someone
would actually read it!)
Unlike the Gospels or Luke's Acts of the Apostles,
which were fashioned long after the events that they describe,
Paul's letters preserve not only his thoughts but also his
feelings at the time he wrote. These letters have a freshness
and liveliness to them that still comes through 2,000 years
later. They are the "e-mail" of the Bible.
God's Free Gift
For a lively communication, read Paul's letter
to the people of Galatia, a mountainous area in the center
of Asia Minor. The Christian community in this region was
being ripped apart by the most serious controversy facing
the early Church.
Some Jewish Christians felt that becoming a
follower of Jesus was a two-step process. First, a person
became a Jew, then he or she could be baptized as a Christian.
Paul always opposes this point of view; either
God's gift to us through Jesus is an act of unconditional
love or it isn't. If it is, Paul maintains, then the only
thing a person needs to do is accept the gift through Baptism
and live in communion with the rest of the Church.
Did you ever experience the frustration of trying
to tell a friend something really important and not being
able to make him or her understand what you mean? Paul's been
there: "O stupid Galatians! Who has bewitched you, before
whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified?
I want to learn only this from you: did you receive the Spirit
from works of the law, or from faith in what you heard? Are
you so stupid?" (Galatians 3:1-3).
Apparently, Paul's "tough love" approach worked.
Later evidence suggests that the Christian churches of Asia
Minor were some of the strongest in the early centuries of
Christian history. The first part of the Book of Revelation
is addressed to seven churches in this region, and one of
the earliest Christian martyrsSt. Polycarpwas
a bishop from Asia Minor.
What comes through most clearly in Paul's letters
is his experience of God's love. Behind everything that Paul
writes, underlying every argument he makes, is a fervent desire
to tell each of the members of the faith communities he founded
just how much God loves them. And just what is the kind of
love God has shown for us and calls us to show to others?
Paul's answer to this question posed by the members of the
Church at Corinth is perhaps the most beautiful description
of love ever recorded: "Love is patient, love is kind. It
is not jealous, (love) is not pompous, it is not inflated,
it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is
not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury, it does
not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. It
bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures
all things. Love never fails" (1 Corinthians 13:4-8).
The end of Paul's life is shrouded in mystery.
At the end of Acts of the Apostles, Paul's tendency to attract
trouble wherever he goes has come to the attention of the
Romans. He hits the "Big Time" when he is sent to Rome on
charges of causing a riot in Jerusalem at the end of his third
journey. (The account of Paul's arrest in Jerusalem, imprisonment
in Cesarea and sea voyage to Rome reads like the plot of an
Paul indicates in his letter to the Church in
Rome that he is planning a fourth journey to Spain (Romans
15:24), but we don't know if he ever went. There is a tradition
in the Catholic Church that Paul was beheaded during the persecution
of Christians by Emperor Nero in 64-65 A.D.
There is no mystery about how important Paul's
life and ministry have been to the Church, however. Paul's
faithful attempts to help others experience the presence of
the risen Christ in their lives in spite of persecution and
hardship helped the gospel message to take root in many different
cities and towns throughout the Roman Empire. The small communities
that Paul founded would become the backbone of the Christian
Church that eventually converted the whole Roman Empire.
Paul's own appraisal of the work that he had
done for Jesus is humble and to the point: "But we hold this
treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing power may
be of God and not from us. We are afflicted in every way,
but not constrained; perplexed, but not driven to despair;
persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed....For
we who live are constantly being given up to death for the
sake of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested
in our mortal flesh" (2 Corinthians 4:7-9,11). For Paul, no
matter what God called him to do, it was always a labor of
Andrew "Jingles" Elekes (15), Zak Kennedy
(15), Nick O'Donoughue (17) and Caroline Powers (15) are members
of the San Juan Del Rio Senior High School Ministry in Switzerland,
Florida. They met over all-you-can-eat pizza with their youth
minister, Christina Davis, where they read, discussed and
posed questions about this Youth Update.